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Heavyweight set for center stage over two weekends in May


It's taken long enough, but the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix sure is going out with a bang.

I'm not talking about just the banging that will happen in the May 19 finale, although Josh Barnett vs. Daniel Cormier is a tantalizing, if unexpected clash of fighters at opposite ends of their careers yet both within a grappling arm's length of prime time. Who would have guessed that these two would be the finalists back when this tournament kicked off more than a decade, er, more than a year ago with the legendary Fedor Emelianenko and superhero-sized Strikeforce champion, Alistair Overeem, grabbing the bulk of the headlines?

The unfailingly formidable veteran Barnett, maybe, but Cormier? An unbeaten but only marginally tested former Olympic wrestler, he wasn't even in the field ... until being called on to replace the 'Reem, who apparently wasn't sufficiently healed from June's first-round fight -- a decision over Fabricio Werdum in which, intriguingly, he appeared to sustain no damage -- to commit to a prescribed date in September for a semifinal bout against Fedor slayer Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva. So Cormier stepped up and chopped down Silva via first-round knockout TKO to set up a beguiling tournament final.

That finale is just the beginning, however, of what in essence will be a grand prix of heavyweights extending over two weekends, the second part being UFC 146.

The main event of that May 26 card in Las Vegas will be Junior dos Santos' first defense of the heavyweight championship, with the Brazilian and his thunder fists sharing the octagon with -- guess who -- Overeem. This matchup has been a fait accompli ever since late December, when the 'Reem stormed into the UFC and immediately staked his claim on No. 1 contender status by subduing Brock Lesnar. The title bout was made official this week.

With Overeem getting his shot, the Dana White Fight Club will need a new challenger-to-be. Enter Cain Velasquez and Frank Mir, former champions both, who'll tangle in the co-main event of 146. It was a no-brainer to put Velasquez in position to earn another shot at the top rung of the ladder. Prior to running into a Dos Santos right hand in November and getting TKO'd in 64 seconds in his only title defense, he looked unconquerable. We'll see if he can re-create that aura.

As for Mir, well, he twisted someone's arm to get this fight. That someone was Antonio "Minotauro" Nogueira, who we can only hope learned back in December that it's better to tap than snap. Prior to that, Mir had deflated Roy Nelson and sent Mirko Filipovic into retirement. (Actually, "CroCop" fought twice more, but judging from those KO losses, he must have been knocked senseless by Mir and didn't know enough to call it quits.) So Mir is on a roll, although something tells me that he could get abused by Velasquez worse than he was by Lesnar.

Nelson is part of this jumbo jamboree, too, fighting Antonio Silva on the undercard. Yes, the heavyweight musical chairs game never ends. It'll be the UFC debut for "Bigfoot," and it'll be interesting to see if the colossal Strikeforce Grand Prix refugee will be too much to handle or if he'll be cut down to size by the no-less-colossal right hand of "Bigbelly" -- I mean, "Big Country."

As an aside, Nelson created a bit of a stir this week with a clever Facebook promotion: If 100,000 people were to "like" his page, he promised, he'd drop down to the light heavyweight division. Actually, he said he'd "try" to trim down to the 205-pound limit. I don't know whether Roy, who weighed in at 246 pounds when he fought Werdum last month, can stomach such a severe belt tightening. And frankly, I'm not all that concerned with his slim-down throwdown. But his publicity stunt does bring up a matter I think is worth conversation.

Here's the conundrum: Why is it that just 10 pounds separate flyweights from bantamweights, bantams from featherweights, and feathers from lightweights; only 15 pounds separate lights from welterweights and welters from middleweights; and 20 pounds separates middles from light heavyweights ... yet heavyweights tip the scales anywhere along a 60-pound spread? Maybe that made sense back when fighters a little north of 205 tended to be more skilled than those over 250, who were just big. But these days the division has a bunch of skilled Goliaths, making a 220-pounder David seem overmatched. A 230-pound division would make life easier on the little big men.

There's something in it for us, too. In combat sports from mixed martial arts to boxing, the heavyweight division has always been the glamour weight class. The bigger they are, the harder they fell each other. And if there were two divisions filled with the most massive of fighting men, we would get twice the heavy hitting, more big fights that matter. The purist in me does appreciate the reluctance of the UFC and other fight organizations to squeeze in a glut of weight classes like the ones that have watered down boxing -- from super middleweight to junior welterweight to super junior light middle flyweight -- but wouldn't it be cool if we could have stretches like the upcoming weekends of May 19 and 26 all the time?